Preparing for the peak after peak – how online retailers can reduce the impact of festive returns

Joe Farrell, VP of international operations at PFS

Peak season is just around the corner and this year more than a quarter (28%) of UK shoppers expect to spend more online during the 2019 Christmas shopping season than in 2018. With Black Friday and Cyber Monday now both staple fixtures in the calendar for shoppers and brands, millions of bargain hunters across Britain are expected to head online and take advantage of the latest deals.

Whilst it’s important for retailers to prepare to fulfil the influx of orders during peak season, preparing for the surge in returns following the festive season, also known as the ‘peak after peak’, will be the real challenge for online brands. Today’s customer expects to be able to quickly and easily return products that are ill-fitting or unsuitable. In fact, three quarters (75%) of online consumers believe online retailers should expect higher levels of returns than stores because you can’t physically see the product when buying.

What’s more, impulse purchases, fuelled by the temptation to make significant cost savings over Black Friday weekend, mean that many online shoppers end up buying products that they don’t really want or need. This increasingly impulsive behaviour continues to put pressure on online retailers to ensure unwanted items make it back through the return chain promptly and safely.

Here, we take a look at how online brands can effectively prepare for the ‘peak after peak’ by limiting the impact of returns during and following the festive season.

Managing reverse logistics

The return of thousands of unwanted items can be a challenge at the best of times, let alone during retail’s busiest time of year. Not only can the returns process be extremely costly for online brands but, if not handled properly, it can quickly become a logistical and reputational nightmare.

In order to reduce the heavy burden of returns, online brands must ensure that they have an effective reverse logistics process in place. Value recovered from successfully returned products and the speed in which they are available for resale can greatly affect profitability – so it is more important than ever that brands get this right during peak season.

An effective reverse logistics strategy will enable fast returns processing and minimise the time an item spends in the return channel whilst ensuring its relevancy in the market. Real-time reporting technologies and automated picking, packing and product processing tools are becoming increasingly valuable for managing reverse logistics. By enabling greater efficiency, online retailers are able to speed up the returns process further, whilst offering real-time product visibility and tracking across the supply chain.

Keeping up with contact centre peak

Whilst the efficient return of products through the delivery chain may be enough to contend with, online retailers must also prepare for the effective management of contact centre peak. High volumes of returns can lead to an even higher level of calls, emails and other forms of customer communication during the holiday season. If a customer wants to return an item for whatever reason, whether it is the wrong size, wrong product or damaged, effective communication with the brand is vital. Customers need to feel heard and informed throughout the returns process, which can often be challenging for online retailers to keep up with.

The implementation of online chatbots is just one option that can help brands to ensure positive customer care experiences during busy periods. Tools such as these offer 24/7 availability, no hold times and the ability to answer thousands of enquiries all at once. Whilst this can help to ease the pressure during peak season, it should not be used as a complete replacement for human interaction. Instead, online retailers should use a blended approach, ensuring the quick transfer to a live agent, should the conversation require additional attention. This should include the transfer of all conversation history to ensure a seamless and frustration-free experience.

Blacklisting is not the answer

In an attempt to reduce the burden of peak returns, some big-name retailers have sought to blacklist ‘serial returners’ – those who regularly return multiple items. But this is not the answer. PFS’ research has shown that 75% of millennials would not use an online store that has a strict or ‘no returns’ policy. This is despite only 5% of online consumers having returned more than five items they purchased online in one year.

Although multiple product returns can cost businesses more in delivery charges, providing a quick and easy returns policy will be an extremely crucial factor not only to keep existing customers but to draw new ones in.

Three strikes and you’re out

The best customer experience is one where a customer can return a product with minimal effort or hassle – from the location of their choosing – and receive their processed refund as quickly as possible. With more than six in ten (64%) UK online shoppers saying they would stop using an online retailer after a maximum of three bad experiences, there is a lot at stake for brands who get this wrong.

Getting the returns process right will help retailers to protect brand loyalty, ensuring repeat custom as well as improving positive word of mouth customer messages. Whilst return logistics can seem daunting – online retailers who have the right fulfilment strategies in place will be best placed to thrive this peak season.

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